Are the Contours of a Hillary Doctrine Emerging in Iraq?

Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives to a signing of her book "Hard Choices", Thursday, July 17, 2014, in Ridgewood, N.J. (AP Photo
Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives to a signing of her book "Hard Choices", Thursday, July 17, 2014, in Ridgewood, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

There's an awful lot of handwringing going on in Washington. With each passing day, there seems to be a new excuse for why America can't work by, with, and through our friends and international partners. A leading opponent of interventionist foreign policy, Sen. Rand Paul, recently said of ongoing airstrikes in Iraq, "[I]t concerns me that we would have to do their fighting for them because they won't fight for their own country, their own cities." The retaking of ISIL-held towns merely represents the first step in a years-long, not months-long, process. Make no mistake: If elected president of the United States, Hillary Clinton would inherit an abysmal situation in Iraq. Sen. Paul's concern may be warranted, yet isolationism remains an irresponsible foreign policy. So what should be done about it?

Astute observers are already turning to the public statements of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for answers.

Hillary repeatedly expressed support for arming the moderate Syrian opposition. This is a superior political platform going into 2016. Besides the highly effective Kurdish forces, Syrian rebels are the only force with any success combating ISIL. Political dynamics are key to Iraq's woes, and it would be foolish to think political inaction on behalf of the United States did not exacerbate the Syrian crisis' impact. Though this idea is in dispute, many commentators believer (rightly, in my view) that the United States could have armed the moderate Syrian opposition sooner and turned the tide. There was a chance, however remote, that the violent ascendancy of ISIL would have been tempered. Since ISIL already has anti-aircraft weapons, the downside of supplying lethal assistance to vetted Syrian opposition groups is vanishingly small. Removing a pillar of legitimization for ISIS by backing the opposition was always a no-brainer. So too was damaging Iran's regional standing through a series of diplomatic skirmishes and the removal of the MEK from the list of terrorist organizations, a bold but welcome move. This is also a hallmark of Secretary Clinton's past deeds: Her handpicked team is largely responsible for the unprecedented economic sanctions levied against Iran.

Speaking of unprecedented, armed drones -- a reconnaissance and, later, precision-strike platform created during her husband's presidency -- have no reliable way of distinguishing between enemy combatants and noncombatants without actionable intelligence. With the National Security Agency still reeling from Edward Snowden's tornado of theft, and a rudderless Central Intelligence Agency, Clinton would, as president, preside over the least capable intelligence community in recent memory. As for targeted killings, because the principle of proportionality that guides jus in bello cannot be always be applied, proportionality becomes immeasurable. This has largely guided Bush's and now Obama's thinking when it comes to protecting the homeland, and there is no reason to think a President Hillary Clinton would be any more restrained. Mitigation, not preemption. Action instead of inaction. Times Square bomber, inside the towers all over Times Square. Indeed, because you cannot calculate how much collateral damage truly occurred in order to achieve the expected military objective, the political utility of the action becomes the primary consideration. Evil men may be plotting in a North African nation, with intent to strike America? Take them out! Salafi jihadists have overrun the border of Jordan? Send in the drones! The ethical challenges that targeted killings present have always paled in the face of raw political utility and the political climate at the time. If there is a resurgent al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or a new offshoot of whatever remains of ISIL in 2017, it should surprise no one if a President Hillary Clinton acts decisively and with overwhelming force. Diplomacy complements defense, and vice versa; development augments both, resulting in equilibrium. And none of those three communities wants another 9/11.

The lack of identified combatants in fourth-generation warfare diminishes the effectiveness of conventional military operations. This raises a fundamental issue for the counterinsurgent -- and his commander-in-chief -- who sets out to use minimum force but does not know who their enemy is. Hillary's past actions seem to indicate a willingness to seize on the political utility that JSOC and CIA provide, and to utilize them in concert with a lighter, smarter, and faster conventional military to throw America's weight around when necessary. Again, the willingness to strike Osama bin Laden's compound is a pivotal moment; from her own remarks, she is seen to be determined, clear-eyed, and resolute in her belief that it was a just and necessary action. America has not run out of enemies. It is clear that Hillary is comfortable with targeted killings; but will she be less restrained than Obama? That remains to be seen.

While she may not be in office yet, a probable Iraq policy under a President Clinton isn't hard to determine either. When we examine her own memoirs and public statements in favor of intervention in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, it become readily apparent that a President Hillary Clinton's Iraq policy would be three pronged. First, the military gains of ISIL would be rapidly blunted and reversed to prevent further deployment of Shi'a militias and subsequent self-reinforcing sectarian bloodshed. Second, a free and independent Kurdistan would be recognized and supported by the United States. Third, Iraqi politicians would be persuaded (read: pressured) to form an inclusive government that includes stakeholders from all major constituencies -- Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurdish -- to reinstate basic governance and split non-jihadi Sunni groups away from the insurgency. Concurrently, the U.S. Agency for International Development and nongovernmental organizations would expand its efforts from Jordan and Turkey deeper still into Iraq and Syria. Under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Department of State and USAID increased, by several orders of magnitude, their ability to deliver aid to war-torn and famine-ridden areas. Iraq is plagued not just by unrest but by sectarian strife exacerbated by the humanitarian situation. It will require years of American leadership and an attentive Department of State -- an executive branch department I would gather she knows a little bit about.

In exchange for Iraqis forming an at-least-partially representative government, the U.S. could leverage American political capital in the provincial elections in 2017. Concurrently, the administration would seek a status of forces agreement with the Kurds out to at least 2050. In exchange for the economic stimulus provided by the SOFA, construction could begin on new but austere bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Treated abysmally by the West since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were made a promise in 1920 of statehood that was later annulled. By a future Clinton administration, America will have closed a circle: The Kurds will have the makings of an autonomous state and, with Kirkuk, the resources to fund and maintain it. If the Kurds ask for American recognition of an independent state, they should have it. After all, America's real friends are in Erbil. It's a monumental lift, to be sure. But with cachet and the right personality, the diplomatic assurances necessary for its success can be secured.

Secretary of State Sandy Berger, anyone?

In the 21st century, the enemy is not a state. This will necessitate the use of diplomatic prowess and covert action in concert with overt military force. In an urban environment inland or along the coast, it is incredibly difficult for an opposing force to distinguish enemy combatants from noncombatants. Instead, because the insurgent weaves itself into the fabric of the population and society, future adversaries become almost undetectable. Enemy combatants of the near future will not be soldiers of the state, and therefore it will be difficult if not impossible to seek an Authorization for Use of Military Force. Authorization for what? And, more poignantly, against whom? The language would be outdated in a week. The enemy is the population. "They are everywhere, yet they are nowhere," as the intellectual godfather of modern counterinsurgency, David Galula, once famously observed, and it will take a population-centric clandestine service -- which the United States does not currently possess -- to combat this. Masked and without a uniform of an armed service, the enemy of the future is impossible to fight with the doctrine of the past. Secretary Powell's views have long since fallen from favor in Washington and, to a certain extent, the financial and intellectual capitals of London and New York. The success of the Osama bin Laden raid and the toppling of Gaddafi solidified her views as Secretary and will undoubtedly shape her views as President.

Have we begun to see the contours of a Hillary Doctrine emerge over the past few months? Only time -- and the presidency -- will tell.

This post was co-authored with Megan Anderson, an astute observer of international affairs. Follow her on Twitter.